By Sue Davis.
This year the very popular Christmas Market Bake Sale held by the Goschenhoppen Historians at Red Men’s Hall, Green Lane, PA is by pre-order. The drive thru pick-up will be on December 5 only. Please see goschenhoppen.org for ordering information, starting November 14 through November 29.
A bite of history
Among the few possessions early German immigrants brought to America were family recipes. Today’s PA Dutch Christmas cookies descend from those handwritten treasures.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how old many of the recipes are, but some date back centuries. In Pennsylvania German Cookery by A. Hark and P. A. Barba (1956), a lebkuchen recipe note tells the story of the Abbess of Rosenthal sending her brother, the Count of Nassau, a New Year’s gift of latwerg (plum butter) and lebkuchen in 1556. In general terms, lebkuchen, apeas cookies (spelling varies), sand tarts, and gingerbread cookies seem to have the longest histories. However, there were many family, local and regional variations. German and PA Dutch bakers used ingredients they had available to them.
No matter the kind of cookie, Christmas cookies in PA Dutch areas had a few things in common. All of them are made in great quantities, with some families measuring by lard cans or even wash baskets. In Alfred Shoemaker’s Christmas in Pennsylvania, he quotes an unnamed grandmother lamenting that “people don’t bake Christmas cookies like they used to. When I was a child we baked several wash baskets full. And people don’t bake the dunking kind either anymore, as we did. Why ours were great big cookies, perhaps six to eight inches across the middle.”
Special recipe cookies were made just once a year around Christmas time, with baking commencing weeks before the holiday. Some cookies (if allowed to age) tasted even better a few days or weeks later. Some bakers had to hide containers of cookies from the family cookie “monsters” so the supply would last through the holiday season. Cookies were also shared with shut-ins, friends (maybe the ancestor of today’s cookie swap parties?) and, last but not least, the Belsnickel. Today’s Santa Claus still gets his milk and cookies set out on Christmas Eve.
Many cookies were cut out with tin cookie cutters, mostly of animal shapes. Why animals? One theory states that Northern Europe’s pre-Christian winter solstice traditions included animal sacrifices to the gods Thor, Wodin, and Freya. After conversion to Christianity, the traditions were eventually adapted to baking animal shaped cakes during Christmas holidays.
Gone are the days of local tinsmiths (including my great uncle Jake Stauffer of Boyertown, PA) who made cookie cutters. If today’s baker is one of the lucky ones, she’ll have some old family tin cookie cutters handed down through the generations. But, if you aren’t that fortunate, you can still buy traditional cookie cutters online. CookieCutter.com now makes the well-known H. O. Foose brand, formerly manufactured in Fleetwood, PA.
Fredric Klees, author of The Pennsylvania Dutch (1950), apparently had a great fondness for the old cookie cutters and was chagrined to learn that collectors were buying them up at sales and auctions. Klees says, “If they are bought by people who use them, all is well; but to turn them into collectors’ items and thus deprive children of untold delight is thoughtless and worse. May all such collectors have the itch, the palsy, and the gout!” Pretty strong language, but that author must have had wonderful cookie memories.
Today’s cookies may be smaller, but there is a greater variety with options even for non-bakers. If you’ve never baked cookies, this year might be an ideal time to try out a recipe or two and spread some holiday cheer. The internet is full of Christmas cookie recipes, baking shows, and decorating how-to advice. Or, and possibly more satisfying, browse printed cookbooks for recipes. Public libraries are a great resource for cookbooks if you don’t have any. You’ll find ideas for drop cookies, roll-out cookies, chilled dough roll/slice cookies, bar cookies, cookie press cookies, cookies rolled into balls, springerle cookies shaped in molds, cookies with treats inside, chocolate dipped cookies, and more. Bakers short on time can even purchase ready-made cookie dough. For beginner make-it-from scratch bakers, the easiest types of cookies are drop cookies and bar cookies.
Ah, cookie memories. Do you have a favorite cookie-centric memory from your childhood? Like when you were allowed to help cut out and decorate the cookies? Or, maybe you got to hold the cookie press and squeeze out pretty flowers or wreathes with that buttery dough? Or, how about the aroma of baking cookies wafting all over the house enticing you to the kitchen to eat the broken bits or misshapen cookies? And, maybe sneak a few more cookies when Mom’s back was turned?
One of my favorite memories is helping with large gingerbread men. They were always dressed up in pink icing and three raisins for buttons, but sometimes we got creative when Mom wasn’t looking (or maybe she was watching, and just let us have our fun). Roll-out cookies were often sprinkled with colored sugar and we kids got to help with that, too. Today my husband is my cookie decorator since he missed out on the annual cookie baking frenzy growing up. His family had delicious holiday traditions, just not cookies.
My mom made several kinds of cookies every year, but often varied the menu. Some recipes were handed down to her and sometimes she tried out a new one. My great grandmother’s salt cookie recipe is being baked by the fifth generation after her and is still a family favorite. My sister has kept the large metal can where Mom stored her 25 pound bags of flour. And much of the family bakes cookies at Christmas. A few recipes are included below, so try your hand at one of them. And, enjoy the holiday season with a nibble or two of a good cookie.
Lebkuchen Bar Cookies (from German Cooking, Ruth Malinowski et al., 1978)
Sift together the spices, salt, flour and baking powder. Stir in the almonds and lemon rind.
In a separate bowl beat the eggs and sugar until a ribbon is formed when the beater is removed. Stir in the honey and milk. Gradually stir in the flour mixture, beat until smooth.
Spread the batter in an 11 x 17-inch jelly-roll pan that is well greased and floured. Bake at 400 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes, until the cake is done. While still warm, turn the cake out onto a rack.
To make the almond glaze, mix the confectioners’ sugar, almond extract, rum and 1 to 2 tablespoons water. Beat until glaze is smooth and of the right consistency. Add more water, if necessary, to thin.
Spread the warm cake with almond glaze. Cut cake into 1 x 2 ½ inch bars while still warm.
Spice bars keep 6 to 8 weeks in a sealed container if not glazed. Makes 4 dozen.
1 c. shortening
1 c. sugar
1 c. molasses
4 ½ c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 T. ginger
¼ tsp. salt
Mix. Chill. Roll 1/8“ thick and cut with cookie cutters. Bake at 350 for 8 minutes. Allow to cool before moving to rack.
2 c. sugar
½ c. butter and lard
1 c. sour milk (you can make milk “sour” by adding 1 T. of vinegar to a cup of milk)
2 t. baking soda
1 t. cream of tartar
1 t. salt
Flour to stiffen to roll out (approximately 5 ½ cups). Bake on greased sheets at 375 degrees for about ten minutes or until done.
*You can use buttermilk as a substitute for sour milk but that might change the flavor of the cookies. Early twentieth century cooks typically had ready access to fresh unpasteurized milk, called “sweet milk” that turned into “sour milk” in several days. Today’s ultrapasteurized milk may not “sour” in the same way as it contains less bacteria. I have figured out that putting the 1 T. of vinegar in a pyrex cup first and adding the milk on top makes it curdle better. Also, microwaving the milk just a little bit to warm it will make the milk curdle almost instantly. No waiting around.
Hickory Nut Cookies
1 cup butter
2 tsp. vanilla
½ c. sugar
2 tsp. water
2 cups flour
1 cup nuts
Cream butter and vanilla. Add sugar, creaming until light and fluffy. Blend in water, stir in flour, mixing well. Add nuts. Shape in one inch balls, roll in colored sugar. Bake one inch apart on ungreased cookie sheet in 325 degree oven for twenty minutes or until firm.
Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
¾ c. butter/lard
1 ½ c. brown sugar
½ c. sour milk
2 c. flour
2 c. oatmeal
1 tsp. soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 c. raisins
Bake at 325 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes on a greased cookie sheet.
Dietrich, Jeff, and Lucetta Trexler Muth. Folk Art and Foodways of the Pennsylvania Dutch: A Collection of Paintings, Food Lore, and Seasonal Recipes from the Allemaengel in Northern Berks County. Kempton, PA, Albany Township Historical Society, 2006.
Hark, Ann, and Preston A. Barba. Pennsylvania German Cookery: A Regional Cookbook. 2nd ed., Allentown, PA, Schlechter’s, 1956.
Klees, Fredric. The Pennsylvania Dutch. 13th printing ed., NY, Macmillan Publishing Co., 1950.
Malinowski, Ruth, et al. German Cooking. NY, Ottenheimer Publishers, 1978.
Shoemaker, Alfred L. Christmas in Pennsylvania. 40th Anniversary ed., Mechanicsburg, PA, Stackpole Books, 1999.
Weaver, William Woys. Dutch Treats: Heirloom Recipes from Farmhouse Kitchens. 1st ed., Pittsburgh, PA, St. Lynn’s Press, 2016.
Sue Davis is part of the Pennsylvania Dutch diaspora and lives in Brentwood, TN.
7 thoughts on “It isn’t Christmas without Christmas Cookies”
Thank you for this lovely post. Christmas cookies are a must in many households, and we love decorating the cut-out sugar cookies and ginger people.
Can you pass along my comment below to the author of the article? In keeping with good scholarship practices, please do not refer to the early PA immigrants as ‘German.’ Please be aware that the word ‘German’ the way we use it today is probably not the best way to describe this group of people. For those outside the PA Dutch culture, the word German has a tendency to conjure up numerous cliché and incorrect images such as non-related things like Oktoberfescht, lederhosen, and oompah bands. Likewise, the PA Dutch that came here in the 18th c., were here long before the country of Germany came to exist in 1871, and really they did not have a concept of a unified German culture. Perhaps more importantly is that a great many PA Dutch immigrants did not actually come from present day Germany. They also came from the German speaking areas of Switzerland, eastern France, and what is now the western Czech Republic. My own last name is from Canton Berne, Switzerland and relates to immigration of the 1740s. Probably a safer way to describe the culture of the PA Dutch is being ‘Germanic’ rather than ‘German’. Likewise, the expression ‘Pennsylvania German’ is equally problematic, as it is non-historic and was invented in the late 19th century as a rather elitist expression for certain people to connect with their PA Dutch heritage without the baggage of being associated with then popular conception of the PA Dutch being country bumpkins. Thanks,Christopher Witmer
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DEAR SUE DAVIS –
Did your tin smith great uncle have a shop (a garage) accessed via an alley off E. Philadelphia Avenue in Boyertown? I remember the name and the shop, but have no memory of why I visited that place. It wasn’t for cookie cutters.
Enjoyed the article. Will look for more.
Yes, I believe your memory is correct. I haven’t lived in the area for over 40 years, but vaguely remember the location as a brick house on Phila. Ave., Boyertown, PA.
He made more than cookie cutters, but I don’t know the range of items. I also believe he was a WWI veteran. Perhaps other family members will know more.
Wonderful post, and thanks for the recipes.
Thanks for your non-response.
What an interesting article well done!